EIGHT gold miners in South Africa died after a magnitude-2.4 earthquake triggered an underground fire.
Rescue teams operating deep below the surface were last night searching for a ninth missing miner, the Harmony mining company said.
Smoke and a rockfall had hampered searchers struggling to find any survivors after fire broke out one mile underground at the Doornkop mine, the company said in a statement. The mine is 19 miles west of Johannesburg.
The country’s National Union of Mineworkers said the rockfall had ruptured electrical cables, triggering the fire, and that water and ventilation pipes were also damaged. It called for an urgent investigation.
“Our members’ lives must come first. The health and safety measures must be applied,” said union spokesman Livhuwani Mammburu. “There is technology available to actively monitor seismicity underground. We wonder if Harmony has got that technology.”
The NUM said rescued miners had reported that the ventilation system in one of the refuge chambers was letting in fumes.
NUM secretary general Frans Baleni said: “We cannot just say that it is regrettable. Heads must roll should the investigation find that there was negligence.”
James Duncan, a Harmony spokesman, said the company has monitoring equipment.
“Seismicity is not an exact science,” Mr Duncan said. “The challenge is to stay abreast of current technology, make sure you have the best that is available and continue to strive for improvement.”
South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world, raising concern about the safety of workers who could be more vulnerable to tremors and other dangers. The Doornkop mine shaft extends about 1.2 miles below ground. Harmony’s deepest gold mines go to twice that depth, Mr Duncan said.
South Africa’s ministry of mineral resources said its chief mine inspector visited the mine after the disaster.
Minister Susan Shabangu said this week – just before learning of the fatal fire – that miners’ health and safety had improved significantly since a panel formed in 1994 found poor safety standards and inadequate enforcement of existing laws.
The parliament will soon consider amendments that strengthen the country’s mine health and safety laws, Ms Shabangu said at an international mining conference in Cape Town.
More than 54,000 miners in South Africa have died in accidents since reporting began in 1904, and many more have died from exposure to hazardous dust, gas and fumes, the ministry says on its website.
The Chamber of Mines, an industry group, said there were 112 deaths in South African mine operations in 2012, a 9 per cent reduction over the previous year.
The mining industry in South Africa, a pillar of the economy, is struggling with increasing costs and labour unrest.
Workers have been on strike for two weeks in the country’s platinum-mining sector, amid sporadic reports of clashes pitting protesters against mine security and police. In 2012, police shot and killed several dozen miners during labour unrest at a Lonmin platinum mine.